Space to Think works for women…

I’ve been delighted at how successful the pilot group of “Space to Think” has been.  The anonymous survey has shown that the women taking part have hugely benefited from working together, and that the format is really effective.  You can have a look at the results here:

Group members’ comments say it all: here’s a sample:


“It is just great to have a space where you can focus on what the real issues are and then have independent, non-judgement input from the facilitator and your peers.”

“It is a great place to stand back and consider issues in the round. It is good to listen too and learn and gain perspective through talking with others, uncluttered from work: a fresh perspective. It is also great to meet other CEOs and share the challenges we all face. I think this is important and will contribute to working development and my organisation in the longer term. “

“After every session I have actually implemented much of the suggestions received.”

“I like the themes and love your input and preparation of materials and questions that accompany this. It gives us a real opportunity to explore and consider the theme well and then discuss it. Interesting too to have the issue part – sometimes shared issues and interesting to discuss, sometimes very different but good to know and consider process and practice.”

“I have been going through some very challenging times and these sessions have come along at just the right time. Having people who are ‘walking in your shoes’ somewhere else is invaluable as they really understand what you are going through even though your issues are different..”

“Beanstalk Space to Think facilitated peer support has helped me to develop practical strategies to address staff and board issues within my organisation. (The most cost effective consultancy I’ve come across!)”

“It provides a fabulous opportunity for women in senior leadership roles to learn from and support each other, develop new skills, and benefit from fresh perspectives to everyday challenges in the workplace.”

So if you’d like to join the next group, or chat about your support needs, please drop me a line – – I’d love to hear from you, and I’ll be starting up a new group in the late summer/autumn.



Keeping the faith

Yesterday I went to one of those events where you get to hear about a rare new pot of money, some of which may trickle down to small voluntary organisations in order that they may make a difference to increasingly desperate people’s lives.  That’s after the big guys have creamed off all their profits….but let’s not go there.  I met up with a colleague who runs a small mental health charity that does extraordinary things and promotes creativity, positivity, and healthy lifestyle to people who are struggling with their mental health.

“I’m losing staff,” said my colleague.  “They can’t cope with the number of people who are dying.  Four of our service users committed suicide over the past few months, and we learnt of another three who died through self-neglect.”

Just hold that thought: we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet vulnerable people, all of whom have had contact with our mental health systems, are dying because they’re not feeding themselves and nobody’s checking to see if they’re alive or dead.  What does that say about the degree to which we invest in caring – or not caring – for those who are struggling the most in our communities?

The mental health charity, MIND, received 50% more calls to its helpline in 2012/13 than in the previous year.  People are facing more complex problems, and many are being triggered by financial crises and unemployment.  The Office for National Statistics reports that suicide rates rose significantly in 2011, from 11.1 deaths per 100,000 to 11.8.  Meanwhile, the number of mental health inpatient beds has been slashed, according to a BBC News and Community Care magazine report, the findings of which were broadcast on 16th October.  A Freedom of Information question revealed that at least 1,711 beds had been closed since April 2011, including 277 between April and August 2013.  This equates to a 9% reduction in acute care provision.  At the same time, local authority spending cuts are having a massive impact on community services.  In the borough where I work, all mental health day centres have been closed; most community support work is carried out in public spaces such as coffee shops (all the more profit to Starbucks, Costa, et al), and people’s access to support is time-limited.  They can, of course, apply for personal care budgets, but the pot is diminishing, fewer people are eligible, and at my organisation we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in those being funded for placements with us.  That means that more people are lonely and scared and don’t have anywhere to go.  And then there are our colleagues on the front line of advice and support organisations, and those working with elderly people who don’t know whether to stay warm or eat….These are some of the big political issues of our time, and there are many ways in which we might attempt to tackle them.  But in the meantime, community and voluntary organisations are on the front line.  Not only do we have the increasingly challenging task of advocating for, supporting, and enabling our clients, but we also have to try to stay alive in the face of budget cuts and dwindling resources.

So how do we make sure that those of us running services stay healthy, and maintain the spirit and energy to do an increasingly demanding job – keeping our staff and volunteers buoyant; creating new ideas that someone may want to fund; writing bid after bid to bring in the money?  I asked my colleague.  “I go away,” she said.  “I get as far away as I can, preferably somewhere where I don’t speak the language and where my phone won’t work.”  My coaching clients invest in time to think and vent and explore the complex issues with which they’re bombarded in the office.  Here are some other things that may help:

  1. Find a mentor/external supervisor who works some distance from where you work: use the journey to have some quiet thinking and reflection time, both there and back.
  2. Group supervision is a helpful way of sharing resources, approaches, and solutions, and I think is particularly important for organisations working in mental health.  Find someone you trust, and who knows about mental health, to facilitate.
  3. Be transparent: as far as possible keep your team in the loop with what the problem is, what you’re doing about it, and how they can help.
  4. Give people opportunities to create solutions.  That way they’ll feel that they have some power and influence in the situation.
  5. Take care of yourself: enroll in a yoga or qi gong class; learn some mindfulness techniques and incorporate meditation into your life; get plenty of aerobic exercise (I feel better on the days when I cycle to work); get plenty of daylight, and if your work space is dark, invest in a daylight lamp; eat healthy, natural foods; cut down on sugar and alcohol.
  6. People who are resilient maintain a good network of friends and supporters.  Make time for fun and friendship.
  7. You won’t have all the skills and knowledge yourself to keep your organisation on track, so make sure your team – including your board/management committee – have the skills that you don’t.  Bring in volunteers, advisors, whatever you need to make positive change happen.  Charity Days can put you in touch with people willing to work with you for free, or at a reduced rate.  Local businesses can be a great resource.  Check out Pilot Light.
  8. Build alliances and partnerships: strength and creativity in numbers!
  9. “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”
    Elizabeth Edwards
  10. Continue to visualise yourself and your organisation as successful; focus on what’s working.  Paying too much attention to what’s not, or to the problems, will take up brain energy that you need for getting through the tough times.

And yes, I have to work hard at all this too!  Do contact me if you’d like to join a coaching/support group, or are interested in one to one work, and please do reply with your own tips for staying alive.

Reflections on leadership…

P1040697Last Wednesday I stepped down as a trustee of Asylum Aid.  I’d been on the board for 8 years, had acted as its vice chair, and even spent a year in the role of acting Chair, and it felt like a good time to have a break.  My decision was helped by the fact that we’d got some skilled and enthusiastic newcomers on the board: I’d be leaving it in very capable hands.  But I shall carry on being a strong supporter of this extraordinary organisation which achieves so much for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.  Maurice Wren, Asylum Aid’s Director, will also be moving on next month, and so this blog, in reflecting on the qualities that make Asylum Aid so special, is also a tribute to him, and to a particular kind of leadership.  It is also a tribute to Enver Solomon, who has ably chaired the Board of Trustees for the past 8 years.  I want to try to capture some of the qualities of this organisation and share them with my readers, because I think there are clear lessons here for other charity leaders.  I’ve certainly watched and tried to learn during my happy association with Asylum Aid

Asylum Aid is an organisation that’s been successful on a number of fronts.  They’ve influenced the law, nationally, and also at European and international levels, particularly in relation to gender, highlighting the specific experiences and barriers of women who need to flee their countries of origin.  They have an extremely successful track record in terms of their legal representation, thanks to a team that is passionate about their work.  Funders want to support them: in my time, two particular donations stand out, both entirely unsolicited: the first for £25,000, and the most recent for £250,000.  Yes, that’s right.  Someone gave AA a quarter of a million pounds, and we don’t know who was behind the donation, and certainly didn’t ask for it.  So what’s Asylum Aid’s secret?  Well, from where I’m standing, I’d say that right at the top of the list is the integrity of its leadership.  With Maurice and Enver, you know what you’re getting.  They’re both absolutely committed to the cause.  They tell it how it is, even when things aren’t going so well.  They don’t let their egos get in the way of the job.  There’s a humility about Maurice that is truly impressive: he’s not self-deprecating, it’s just that the work is about justice and human rights and supporting people escaping the worst of circumstances.  It’s not about him.  Debora Singer, who has led the Women’s Project since 2000, and whose work has saved countless lives, is also modest about her work and her contribution.  I’m glad to say that it’s been recognised in that she’s been awarded an MBE; but again, with Debora, it’s all about the work, it’s not about her.

And I think that this sense of humility informs the way that Asylum Aid interacts with others.  All donors are thanked, as Maurice explained at the AGM last week.  It doesn’t matter how large or small the donation, everyone who contributes to Asylum Aid’s funds receives a personal and heartfelt thank you.  There’s an openess in the relationship with funders, and that builds confidence.  I do believe that this respect of and for donors and supporters has led to the generous and unsolicited gifts referred to above.

This core value of respect and acknowledgement informs how the board is run.  Every board member is welcomed for their specific skills.  I remember early on in my time, Enver encouraging people who didn’t feel confident in finance matters to join the finance sub-committee, because it would be a good way of learning about charity finance and building up skills.  Everyone’s view was equally valid, and I’m proud to have been part of a functional board which has not been riven by infighting or politics.

There are many qualities that make for a successful organisation.  In Asylum Aid’s case, the two key qualities of integrity and passion, mixed in with a very high level of skill and proficiency, make it an organisation to be reckoned with.  I’m not a trustee any more, but I’m proud to call myself a supporter.  And I hope that this reflection has given you food for thought, particularly if you’re leading an organisation.


Beyond the water cooler

I’m writing this article wearing my chief executive of SHARE Community hat (hard hat? train guard’s peaked cap? wide-brimmed straw hat decorated with shiny cherries and gingham ribbon? chic beret?) because I want to share something with everyone else who’s in a leadership role.  Following a recommendation by our Investors in People assessor (we achieved the Bronze award last year), I’m using appraisal season to have a one to one meeting with all the staff, rather than just those for whom I hold line management responsibility.  It’s proving to be a revellation.   I like to think I’m on good terms with everyone, 360 responses that fed into my own appraisal would tend to support that view, and I certainly like and respect each of my colleagues.  My office door is rarely shut. There’s plenty of chat around the photocopier or in the kitchen (we’re not posh enough to have a water cooler) and the annual staff satisfaction survey tells me quite a bit about how people are feeling about being at SHARE.  But these scheduled, one to one meetings, unstructured and informal, are something different, and I’m finding that each person is using their protected time with me in a unique way that’s right for them.  Some people have used it as an opportunity to go out for coffee and cake and tell me all the things they like about their job.  Others have talked about what’s working for them, and what has caused them grief.  Some see it as a chance to make suggestions about how we could organise things differently, and others to talk about their visions for the future.  Some have used it as an opportunity to share something personal that they’d like me to know.  Each session has felt special, and has had its own kind of intimacy.  Each has given me something to ponder, and there have been some ideas that will lead to organisational change. From some, I’ve learnt about how my own behaviours can help or hinder, and so have been able to make changes.

I believe that a happy and healthy organisation requires a culture that is open, vibrant, and in which everyone feels engaged and valued.  At SHARE, we create an environment where open dialogue and creative thinking is integral to how we work, and our recent staff survey showed 95% of staff as being happy to be working there.  These one to one meetings are a step beyond the workshops and project groups and away days that are central to our culture.  My role is to listen.  I listen, and I ask the kind of questions that a good coach might ask.  Open questions that further develop the person’s thinking, and that enrich our shared understanding.  It’s also an opportunity to appreciate and acknowledge the gifts that each person brings to our organisation.  Yes, it takes time.  Conversations last around an hour, and with 20 people, that’s a big chunk out of the working week or month.  But it’s precious time, and I would strongly recommend it to others working hard to lead organisations.  I’d love to hear of your experiences, so please feel free to comment on this blog.